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On Prettying-Up the Bible (In Reply to @drbobcwcc and @RevKindle)

On Prettying-Up the Bible (In Reply to @drbobcwcc and @RevKindle)

Does the Bible need some improvements, if not in content, at least in presentation? That’s one way to put the question addressed by Rev. Steve Kindle in a guest post on Dr. Bob Cornwall’s blog. I want to make some fairly picky comments on this post. As I do so, I want you to be aware that I generally applaud the goals of this post, even while disagreeing in detail.

My previous experience with prettying-up the Bible involves the violent passages. I previously reviewed Jack Blanco’s book (I have trouble calling it a translation), the Clear Word Bible. Some of his renderings are much more comfortable reading than the original, but I haven’t been able to conceive of a paradigm that would allow me to think of them as accurate. I often think, however, that some of the violent passages of scripture are saved from revision largely because so few people read them. Numbers 31 has the advantage of being in a portion of scripture rarely consulted by Christians. When they do consult it, they are often shocked and wish it would go away.

Besides honesty (or accuracy), there is a problem with smoothing out the past. It conceals the nature of scripture, of the experience with God that comes from different people at different times. Seeing trajectories of change in scripture will change our approach to how we get from the words in the book to ethical action in our world.

Rev. Kindle is primarily addressing gender language. This is a fairly controversial topic in modern Bible translation. Translations have been excluded from certain Christian book stores because of the way the represent gender. As is often the case, however, the issue was much more how one was perceived to represent gender. The same store carried other Bible translations that used gender neutral renderings. These other versions were simply less well-known. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is very involved in these issues from a conservative point of view, and are opposed by the Christians for Biblical Equality. In perusing these sites, one can see that there is a great deal of weight put on these issues in church doctrine and politics.

What is unusual in Rev. Kindle’s presentation is that it comes from a progressive Christian who supports equality. He supports gender neutral language in many endeavors, excluding one:

I am all for the use of gender neutral terms for God in all church settings including sermons, liturgies, and conversations. But when it comes to inclusive language in Bible translations, I must object.

There is a valid distinction between those fields of endeavor. There is a great deal of difference between determining the way I will discuss God and the way I will translate. Do I refer to god solely with masculine pronouns? Do I avoid the use of pronouns at all? Those questions involve different issues when I am translating the apostle Paul, for example, as opposed to expressing my own theology. I am not a pastor, a liturgist, or a theologian. My studies were in biblical languages, and I’m a publisher. I’m interested in the words.

And that’s where we tend to get into trouble.

Whats in a Version?Most people, in my experience, view Bible translation as a singular effort, one with a definite, definable goal. I encounter this attitude almost every time I speak or teach or any other time someone manages to connect my face with my book, What’s in a Version?. The question I’m most often asked is: What is the best Bible version? Sometimes there’s a variant: What’s the most accurate Bible version?

But those questions reflect the problem. On the cover of my book I have a one-line answer: The best Bible version is the one you read!

Surely that’s a horrible answer! There have to be bad Bible translations, and I could be reading one of them! And yes, it’s not a complete answer, yet it does make a point. The task of Bible translation is not singular. There is no one “most accurate” Bible translation. There is no single “most readable” translation. In order to answer that common question I have to know who the questioner is. What is the best Bible version for you? I also need to know the activity in view. What is the best Bible version for you to use for devotional reading? What is the best Bible version to use in your study group? What is the best Bible version to use from the pulpit?

The reason is that one cannot transfer the entire meaning of a a source text into any target language. You are going to lose something. The question is what?

Let me take a short digression here. When I discuss loss of meaning I do not mean solely between the text of the source language and the tip of the pen (or the little pixels on the computer screen) of the translator. I mean loss of meaning between what a well-qualified reader of the source language could get from the source text itself, and what a reader of the target language can get from the text in the target language. There is no great value in a text which is accurate in an abstract sense, but is not understood accurately by actual readers. It follows from this that a translation must consider who is to read the text in order to determine how to express thoughts from the source accurately.

Further, understanding comes in different forms. Do I emotionally “get” the story told? Do I comprehend the facts that are narrated? Am I swept away by the literary beauty of the passage? Can I place myself in the shoes of those whose story is told, or who might have first heard the story? All of these things are desirable to various extents at various times, but successfully conveying them is not easy. In fact, it’s impossible to do everything at once. I cannot, for example, convey the rhetorical impact of the Greek of To The Hebrews while also making every point of theology clear to an American audience.

I know readers will object that it is up to teachers and preachers to get the theology right, and they may be correct, but that is a choice in what will be translated. I could then say, “Translation X conveys the theology of Hebrews with great clarity, while translation Y gives one a feel for the literary tour-de-force executed by the author.” The author, however, was intending to convey his (or her, I must concede) theological points in a powerful and compelling exhortation. Where do I compromise?

This is why some have commented on the irenic tone of my book. It’s not that I’m such a peaceable personality, or that I am a great peacemaker, though I would love to be. The reason is that I believe that there are many possible goals for Bible translation and that there are many audiences for which one might translate. Thus there are many possible ways in which one can (and should) translate, so I have less of a tendency to condemn any particular rendering. I do not mean that all translations are equal. I do not mean that there are no wrong translations. I simply mean that there are multiple right translations within various parameters.

I am disturbed when I hear preachers and teachers refer to translations that are supported by significant numbers of scholars as “mistaken” or just as “errors in translation.” This presents the task of translation as too simple. There are many legitimate disagreements which should be referenced as such. Reserve the word “error” for a translation that cannot be justified.

But to get back to the gender issue, Bob, in his introduction brings it up,

Thus, the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Bible will, where the translators deem appropriate, translate a word like adelphoi, the Greek word for brother as “brothers and sisters.”

and Rev. Kindle uses similar phraseology (9th paragraph from the end):

“Member” here is literally, “brother.”

I have been accused of not giving users of the word “literal” the sort of latitude I give with any other word, i.e. recognizing that words have different meanings. The problem with “literal,” especially in circumstances such as these, is that it is extremely susceptible to equivocation. As its use has developed in the language, it is often heard as “accurate” or “faithful” when those who use it intend something more like “simple,” “direct,” or “most common meaning.”

In this case I would disagree with the usage in either case. The Greek word adelphos or its plural adelphoi may have as its referent either a male person (or group of males, as appropriate), or a person of undefined gender, or a group of both men and women. It is probably significant that the masculine form was used in both cases, though it is very easy to take grammatical gender too far in translating a language in which grammatical and natural gender do not match.

Similarly, until recently (change is still in progress) we used “he” to refer to a generic person in English, and “men” and “brethren” to refer to groups of mixed gender. In groups I have been able to survey informally, there seems to be a break right around 40 years of age (adjusted for the passage of time) as to how this usage is understood. Older people will understand “brethren” as including both genders when a group is addressed, while younger ones do not. A pastor illustrated this to me very clearly when he objected to the NRSV because of its gender neutral language. He couldn’t see how “brothers and sisters” was an accurate translation of adelphoi, so he would stick to the more accurate (in his view) RSV. The next Sunday he was reading scripture and he came to a passage in Paul where the apostle was clearly addressing an entire congregation. He stopped, looked up, and said, “And that includes you sisters too!” Clearly he knew some in his congregation would not hear the passage as inclusively as it was intended.

This would apply differently in different passages. For example:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism (James 2:1, NIV, from #BibleGateway).

The words “brothers and sisters” here translated the Greek adelphoi. I think it unlikely that James intended men in the congregation to eschew favoritism, while the women were allowed to practice it. He addresses the whole congregation. Yet if I read the usage of the English language correctly, a congregation with people largely below the age of forty would hear the passage as excluding women if we used the “literal” translation “brothers.”

On the other hand, we have James 3:1:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1, NIV, from #BibleGateway).

Now here we have a historical decision to make. My belief is that there were many more women teaching in the early church than we have imagined. This is not the place to argue the point. If, on the other hand, one believes that only men were permitted to teach, this would lose historical information as translated by the NIV, as “fellow believers” is here also a translation of the Greek adelphoi. (Another interesting question is whether “fellow believers” or “brothers and sisters” is the more literal rendering of adelphoi. But I will avoid diving into the morass of meanings for the word “literal” that would evoke.)

This is different, however, from the kind of effort made by The Inclusive Bible, which changes many cases in which the original intent of the passage, by which I mean in this case the original referent, is not inclusive. The passage Rev. Kindle quotes from 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, for example, if it is original to the epistle (I believe, with Gordon Fee, that it is not), certainly is not intended as inclusive. That case is very different from either of the cases I referenced in the book of James.

These cases should be handled differently, according to the nature of the audience and the usage in the target language. Right now we are somewhat in transition on inclusive language in English, and that will complicate the work of the translator, and even the liturgist. Something that is heard one way by part of the congregation may be heard in the opposite way by another.

In addition, we need to recognize multiple goals in the use of our ancient texts. We do not translate just to convey data. We also translate for liturgy, for devotion, for prayer, for meditation, and for other goals. The particular way we handle the material at hand must take this different uses into consideration. There are certainly illegitimate translations (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 above from The Inclusive Bible, and many Old Testament passages from The Clear Word, for example) but there are also multiple legitimate goals and multiple audiences to which the translator will hope to convey something of the source text.

More on the TNIV

More on the TNIV

I was a bit put off at first by certain rhetoric on the new TNIV Truth blog, and I must confess that anonymity doesn’t rank high with me, even when I understand the motivations. Now the blogger there has “outed” himself and also posted a note on the TNIV on one of my pet peeves–discussions of translator motivations.

First let me quote from Lane Wiemann’s profile:

I have a passion for the Bible being worded in the language of the majority of English speakers. I also have a passion for truth.

Excellent! This is precisely where we want to be.

Much criticism of the TNIV, often combined with advocacy of the ESV is motivation based. While the sophistication of the rhetoric and arguments is better than the old KJV only stuff, there is a distinct nasty odor in this type of argument. It seems extremely odd to me, and even borders on dishonest, to criticize a translation based on some assumptions about translator motivations when the translation itself is available to check alongside the source documents.

I have never encountered any translators who are not motivated by a desire to help people understand the Bible. There are plenty of disagreements about how to accomplish that, and sometimes I have thought translators get way off the mark on the method, but I would be very slow to question any of their motivations.

Thus this from the post Have you stopped beating your wife (TNIV Truth blog) is right on target:

Rather than speculating about the motives of the TNIV translators, it would be better if we objectively examined each verse with which there is a difference of interpretation. In most cases we will discover that good Bible scholars differ on the interpretation of those verses and that the TNIV wordings are supported by lexical and exegetical evidence from the Bible itself as well as from good scholarship.

Wow! What an amazing concept! Let’s look at the actual evidence and see what conclusions we come to! (I am not aiming this sarcasm at Lane Wiemann, but rather at those who somehow miss this obvious method and go instead for unknown and often unknowable motivations.

While I have not encountered actual Bible translators who do not want to express God’s message clearly and accurately, I have encountered many church members who are primarily concerned with other things. Unlike Mr. Wiemann and the folks over at Better Bibles, I’m not a translator except for what I do as part of my own teaching and writing work. Where I encounter this issue is in churches with actual church members when I teach classes in how translation works. Those church members are often confused.

Because some people have attacked the motivations of Bible translators, and the TNIV seems to be the main target right now, and so people are afraid of corrupted Bible translations. Their concern often keeps them from using new versions that provide clearer translations. My own choice for use in writing and often in teaching has been the CEV. One common complaint has to do with the way a version sounds when read from the pulpit. Now oral reading is something that needs to be given consideration in translation, but these members are often not concerned with whether it is easy to understand when read orally or has good rhythm. What they want is something that sounds “Biblical,” generally meaning “like the KJV.”

One class I taught was split throughout, with one group repeatedly saying that the Bible used in church and Sunday School should be one that made them feel comfortable, while the remainder of the class thought the choice should be made based on how well an unchurched person would understand the reading. Not surprisingly, when I read passages to these two groups, the first group like versions like the RSV, ESV, NASB, or the NRSV, except that they generally didn’t like gender-neutral language. The second group favored dynamic equivalence translations like the CEV or TNIV.

I think it is extremely important for those who have a good technical knowledge of translation issues to be truthful and to reduce the rhetoric which makes church members believe there are conspiracies of Bible translators whose purpose is to conceal the truth and support social agendas by inaccurate translation.

It would be valuable, as a start, to stay away from accusations of bad motivation except where there is very substantial evidence.

With Reasons Like These . . .

With Reasons Like These . . .

. . . who needs rationalizations? I refer to the article 7 Reasons Why (it’s title in the title bar) also titled “Key Issues Regarding Bible Translation.” This is on the domain, (yes, Virginia, there really is a!).

A while back I blogged on Mark Driscoll’s reasons for using the ESV at his church. But with highly credentialed people to feed pastors misinformation, what should we expect? I am freshly astounded at the poor quality of argumentation and even of exegesis that is used in these articles, even though I shouldn’t be, because I have read these so many times before. Much of this is warmed over KJV-Only argumentation, just used a little bit more narrowly.

Let’s look at some of the major problems with this essay.

In discussing 1 Kings 2:10, the authors wax quite eloquent about the wonders of the metaphor “slept with his fathers” as opposed to “died,” preferring the Hebrew metaphor for death to a modern understanding. One should, of course, note that the metaphor is a Hebrew metaphor, and question whether the modern English reader in fact hears all of the things the translators expect. This underlines one of the common problems with the arguments of advocates for literal translation: They speak constantly of what meaning a word, phrase, or passage “contains” without asking what an audience will hear when reading that translation. What is lacking is any testing to see precisely what people will hear and understand.

This is precisely how I was awakened out of my own apathy on the issue of translations. I was already a fan of dynamic equivalence translations, and thought the KJV was hopelessly out of date in terms of language. But I felt there was no great reason for me to argue with anyone else about this until I was invited to teach on the history of the Bible to a group of high school aged young people. A couple of the students used the KJV, and when they would read, nobody, including them, understood. Now I still see no problem with my mother using the KJV. She’s 87 years old, has read it all her life, and can understand it quite well. But those young people could not. Why should I spend my teaching time in teaching them how to understand 17th century language?

But that incident started me on learning something very important, other than the realization that many people try to use the KJV even though they don’t really understand it. It suggested to me that the right way to discover how well a Bible translation functioned was to ask people to read it or hear it, and then to explain what they had heard. This applies to the use of gender language, or in this case to the particular metaphor, “slept with his fathers.” Does this metaphor mean all those things to actual church congregations, new believers, or non-Christians? I haven’t tested that particular one, though I suspect the answer is that few people would come up with all the wonderful meanings for the metaphor that our authors find. The problem is that those authors are blithely unconcerned with what people understand. For them, communication is all about what’s “in” the text, not about what readers actually understand from it.

Thus we see the following:

Supporters of essentially literal translations would agree that the dynamic equivalence rendering “then David died” does translate the main idea into contemporary English, but they would add that it is better to translate all of the words of the Hebrew original, including the word shakab (which means, “to lie down, sleep”), and the words ‘im (which means “with”), and

Dave Warnock on Wayne Grudem Interview

Dave Warnock on Wayne Grudem Interview

Dave Warnock has posted an excellent set of reflections on the Wayne Grudem interview series. I strongly recommend reading it, especially some specific reflections from a Methodist perspective. While I do not use the term “evangelical” and Dave does, the problem is a difference of definition. Some of us try to hang onto words and defend them. I generally discard them as they begin to be used of things with which I do not agree.

Idolatry and Male Representation

Idolatry and Male Representation

The new, young associate pastor was praying, and in her prayer she referred to God as “Father-Mother God.” Silence settled over the congregation as mental gasps replaced “Amens.” The associate pastor had transgressed the unofficial line. You can represent God as vengeful or loving, gentle or angry, gracious or demanding, present or distant, but don’t you ever present God as male and female.

I was preparing a communion service with a slightly non-traditional text. Someone reading the material brought a portion of it to me. Was I sure I wanted to use this passage? Wasn’t it feminized? My text had crossed the line. I can represent God as just about anything, but never use feminine language. The feminized language in question? ” . . . gather us under your wing as a hen gathers her chicks . . .” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34).

We constantly use images for God, mental images, yes, but images nonetheless. And there is nothing wrong with mental images, provided you don’t cast them in stone–real stone or mental stone. The Bible uses plenty of images of God, including the feminine image of divine wisdom as used in Proverbs.

The problem comes in when you fix the images in place so that they become your picture of God instead of allowing God to constantly interact with you, shatter your images, and grow you up. As I previously commented on this:

Read More Read More

The Most Annoying Theologian I’ve Never Read

The Most Annoying Theologian I’ve Never Read

. . . is Wayne Grudem. Well, not quite true. The most annoying theologian is Peter Ruckman of the Pensacola Bible Institute, and I have read some of his stuff. I’ve also read articles by Grudem, and I wouldn’t come close to excluding him from Christianity, so I guess I have read him and he’s not the most annoying. So how about I wanted a provocative title?

When there’s someone I really don’t want to take the time to study seriously, it’s nice to have someone else, whose reading ability I’ve come to trust in the blogosphere, take a look. And that is what Dave Warnock has been doing. The first item was Responding to provocation, and the second Starting to understand connections. I am substantially in agreement with Dave on these things. It might also be a good idea, of course, to read the original interview, starting here.

Like Dave, I believe the connections can be broken at any point. I discuss inerrancy here and I have some thoughts on gender language and translation here.

Later today I will be posting on salvation and particularly on the question of who will be saved and whether we can know. I’m also going to respond to one point in the third part of Adrian’s interview with Wayne Grudem, [update] which I have now posted here. Three recent posts of mine are also relevant, The Danger of Unchanging Truth, And I’m not . . . , and Truth, Pluralism, and Absolutism. None of these respond directly to Adrian Warnock (not to be confused with Dave) and Wayne Grudem, but they do relate.

Complementarian Translation?

Complementarian Translation?

Peter Kirk has writtten that he finds a complementarian bias in the TNIV. He says:

A major aim of the changes made in Today’s New International Version (TNIV) was to avoid the danger of such misunderstandings. I don’t think anyone can complain about TNIV’s rendering of 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “Anyone who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” This is after all closer to KJV’s “if any would not work, neither should he eat”, and it avoids any possible misunderstanding that this applies only to males.

However, TNIV does not always make such changes. For example, in Titus 1:6 TNIV has “a man whose children believe”, in this phrase identical to NIV. But there is no word here to be translated “man”; the Greek is tekna ekh